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Joe Maddon returns home to build bridges in a divided city

HAZLETON, Pa. — Earlier this month Joe Maddon stood in front of more than 500 people in a catering hall in his hometown and told them a story.

Last year, he said, he came home for Christmas. He saw the older, white population and the new, rapidly growing Hispanic population, and they weren't getting along. This lower middle class northeastern Pennsylvania city of roughly 25,000 people was no longer the kind of cohesive community in which the manager of the Tampa Bay Rays grew up. It had become a tense, untrusting place, and it bothered him.

One Sunday afternoon, though, he ended up in the Broad Street home of Niurka De La Rosa, one of his cousin's friends and a Dominican mother of three who owns a food truck, a restaurant and a day care. Her husband works as a mechanic. They were hosting an after-church potluck lunch — children running, parents laughing, Latin music blaring, a table full of oxtail, pasteles and sweet wine — and the scene felt familiar. This, Maddon thought, was a lot like the Maddons of 11th Street back in the 1950s and '60s.

"So many parallels," he told the crowd in the catering hall.

Ever since, he said, with help from locals like his sister, his cousin, his cousin's husband and others, he has been planning the Hazleton Integration Project. This fundraising dinner was the first of three days of events. Maddon was a popular kid around here and has gone on to do good things. People listen when he speaks.

He said he has worked for more than 30 years in baseball with men from all over Latin America. They work hard, and they're loyal, and they love their families, and "I really like these people," he said.

"We need," he told 560 focused faces, almost all of them white, "to absorb our Hispanic brothers and sisters."

• • •

This city's history is this country's history. In the 19th century coal was found in the hills, and those who arrived to extract it were Irish, German and Welsh, then Polish, Slavic and Italian. The American Dream had soot on its face.

For decades, these men and their families clustered in ethnic enclaves determined by parish and church. The south side of the city was mostly Irish. The west end was mostly Polish. The northern neighborhoods around Most Precious Blood? Mostly Italian. Many in the generation of Maddon's grandparents never learned English. They didn't have to.

Eventually, though, those different groups started to look more like one Hazleton, "intertwined and congealed into the real melting pot," Arthur A. Krause wrote in 1999 in his history of the city.

Maddon's Italian grandfather's original surname was Maddonni.

Maddon's father married a Polish woman named Albina, or Beanie, and they had three children.

Maddon and his brother and his sister grew up in a cramped second-floor apartment above C. Maddon & Sons Plumbing.

And by 1964, Maddon was the 10-year-old star quarterback for the State Trooper Eagles in the local midget football league, and Hazleton was honored as an All-America City.

• • •

The planes flew into the towers 125 miles away on Sept. 11, 2001, and on the long list of consequences was this: The economy shuddered, and many Dominicans in New York lost their restaurant jobs, security jobs, janitorial jobs. They came here for work. Warehouses and distribution centers were the new coal — no more soot, but still hard work, and again done by immigrants.

One Dominican family told two more, according to Amilcar Arroyo, the publisher of the local Spanish newspaper, and those two told another four. In 2000, the Hispanic population in Hazleton was 4.9 percent; in 2010, it was 37.3. It added up to the first population increase in the city in 70 years — a preview perhaps of a country in which census estimates say whites could be a minority by 2050.

In 2006, in the midst of these rapid changes in demographics, a white man was shot in the face in front of his house by two Dominican men who turned out to be here illegally.

The mayor at the time was Lou Barletta. He grew up here and is a year younger than Maddon. The two of them played Little League together. Barletta proposed a law called the Illegal Immigration Relief Act.

It proposed harsh punishments for anybody who rented to illegal immigrants or gave them jobs. It wanted to make English the city's official language. It read: "Illegal immigration leads to higher crime rates, contributes to overcrowded classrooms and failing schools, subjects our hospitals to fiscal hardship and legal residents to substandard quality of care, and destroys our neighborhoods and diminishes our overall quality of life."

"I don't want them here," he told reporters.

Nobody could pinpoint the percentage of Hispanics in Hazleton who were illegal. The City Council passed the law 4 to 1.

All of this was happening in Maddon's hometown at the beginning of his first season as the manager of the Rays. He had been hired to guide Tampa Bay's perennial loser of a baseball team due in part to his reputation as an inveterate optimist with a flexible mind.

In the last five years, the Rays have made the playoffs three times, once going all the way to the World Series.

In Hazleton, meanwhile, tensions have festered.

• • •

Hazleton today: Washed-out row houses under gray winter skies. Pieces of litter mixed with clumps of snow. Still five bucks for steak and eggs at the old miners' tavern called Cusat's. But the most active commercial district downtown is the now predominantly Hispanic business strip on Wyoming Street. Bright neon signs: Embarques. Cabinas. Pasajes. Celulares. Restaurante Pica Pollo is across from the Greater Hazleton Historical Society.

Some say this new reality is what's killing this city. Others say it's what's keeping it alive.

"The future of this community is to move ahead arm and arm together," said Bob Curry, the husband of Maddon's cousin, Elaine Maddon Curry, and one of the coordinators of the Hazleton Integration Project. "What we are saying is that there is a huge, huge population of Hispanics who are here legally, and it would be irresponsible to turn our backs on this growing, vibrant community."

Enter the manager of the Rays, thinker of big thoughts, believer in simple plans: The project, he said in a news conference, would include the dinner in the catering hall to raise funds for a community center, a showing of It's A Wonderful Life with Spanish subtitles and a meal served to poor families at the Salvation Army.

"We're not doing something for the Latinos in the community," he said. "We're doing something for our community." Together, he explained, is the only way to do it. "Our city is going to flourish if we do. It is not if we do not."

• • •

Across town, at the Beltway Diner, the guys eating breakfast didn't want to hear it.

Joe Yackanich sat on his stool at the corner of the counter. He's 57. He has lived here since 1972. He works at a nearby power plant, five years from retirement, for which he can't wait.

"We're overrun with them," he said. "It's ruined the city.

"There's no room for 'em," he said. "The city ain't that big."

Nods from his fellow regulars, white, like-minded men. The only brown skin in the place belonged to the bus boy.

Maddon "should stay out of it," Yackanich said. "He can stir up all this s--- and he can walk away and leave it alone. He does not live the way we do. We don't get millions of dollars a year.

"He is not one of us."

• • •

The dinner was 50 bucks a head. "Celebrity" servers included local luminaries and professional wrestlers. It wasn't clear how many of the 560 guests were there to hear what Maddon had to say or to get their pictures taken with famous Yankee Yogi Berra.

But Maddon held the microphone and he stressed: Introductions lead to conversations, conversations lead to relationships and relationships lead to trust, and that, he said, is how the Rays have gone from losers to winners.

"I don't see a city being any different."

The police department in this city doesn't have a Hispanic officer. City Hall doesn't have a Spanish translator. Almost never do whites eat at Hispanic-owned restaurants and vice versa. Spray-painted scrawl at the playground behind the building where Maddon was a boy says WHITE POWER.

Barletta is no longer the mayor. That's because last fall he got elected to Congress, partly because of his stance on illegal immigration. The new mayor got elected partly because he agrees with it. Joe Yannuzzi smiled and shook hands around the catering hall. Some of his thinking is indicative of the mixed emotions that have stalled the city.

He said: "Most people here really want to make this town grow. The only way we're going to grow is to get together." But he also said: "Some of these immigrants are here for a better life, but not to be an American, if you know what I mean."

Two appellate judges have ruled unconstitutional the 2006 ordinance, which therefore has never been enforced, but the appeals process lumbers on. It could end up in the Supreme Court.

Integration, though, ultimately doesn't happen through litigation. It happens because of interactions and time. Joseph Maddons fall in love with Albina Kloceks.

And back in the kitchen at the dinner, Niurka De La Rosa, the woman whose potluck lunch started all of this, was preparing 350 pounds of saucy Dominican chicken. It was her contribution to a multicultural meal with Italian meatballs and Polish pierogies, cooked by 76-year-old James Lobitz, a self-described "dumb Polack" and one of the owners of the catering hall. Out in the big room, as people ate their food, Lobitz shook hands with De La Rosa.

"Let me tell you," he told her. "I'm glad this happened, because I met you. Our food was good, your food was good, we did fine. And I love you."

And after dinner, milling about in the crowd, hobnobbing with constituents, was Lou Barletta.

"I think it's a great thing," the congressman said of Maddon's project. He has not changed his mind about the laws he drafted in 2006, but immigrants who are here legally deserve a warm welcome, he said. "Sometimes it takes the next generation."

He knows this. Barletta, the grandson of an immigrant from Italy, now has a grandson of his own. Gabriel Louis Hernandez, three years old, is half-Italian, half-Dominican.

• • •

The morning after the dinner, in the small Broad Street office of Concerned Parents of the Hazleton Area, retired teachers and white kids from the high school read with Hispanic kids from the elementary school.

"We have an open-door policy," said Elaine Maddon Curry, who has been working with this group for the last three years. "We believe in one-on-one."

They read together, and they ate cookies together, and they finished the class by singing Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Outside, a light snow started to fall harder, but inside Curry had a question for the kids.

"How was Rudolph different from the other reindeer?" she asked.

"He had a red nose!" a little boy yelled.

"So Rudolph," Curry said to them, "was a little different than the other reindeer. What does that teach us?" The kids waited for the answer.

"Santa," she said, "saw that he was special." So Santa, she explained, put Rudolph at the front of the sleigh, so he could lead the way.

• • •

Later that afternoon, Maddon parked his SUV on Broad and walked up Church to see a potential property for the community center, a shuttered parochial school — enough space to host sports programs, arts programs, culinary programs, English classes, citizenship classes.

"If we get the kids together, then a lot of good things are going to happen," he said. "It's about bringing the kids together, and then the parents come together, and then …"

Maddon stopped in front of a Dominican barber shop. He opened the door and went inside and extended his hand to the owner.

"Joe," he said.

The man and his customers didn't need an introduction. They knew who he was.

"It's nice to meet you," Maddon said.

Photojournalist Edmund D. Fountain contributed to this report. Michael Kruse can be reached at or (727) 893-8751. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelkruse.

Joe Maddon returns home to build bridges in a divided city 12/23/11 [Last modified: Friday, October 24, 2014 3:43pm]
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